Cleaning up her father’s home after his death, Gwenaëlle Aubry discovered a handwritten, autobiographical manuscript with a note on the cover: “to novelize.” The title was The Melancholic Black Sheep, but the subtitle An Inconvenient Specter had been crossed out. The specter? Her father’s disabling bipolar disorder. Aubry had long known that she wanted to write about her father; his death, and his words, gave her the opportunity to explain his many absences—even while he was physically present—and to sculpt her memory of him.
No One is the portrait of a man without a true self; a one-time distinguished lawyer and member of the Paris bar who imagined himself in many important roles—a procession of doubles, a population of masks—who became a drifter and frequent visitor to mental institutions. Moving between the voices of daughter and father, this fictional memoir in dictionary form investigates the many men behind the masks, and a unified portrait evolves. A describes her father’s adopted persona as Antonin Artaud, the poet/playwright; B is for James Bond; H is for homeless; and, finally, Z is for Zelig, the Woody Allen character who could transform his appearance to that of the people around him. Letter by letter, Aubry gives shape and meaning to the father who had long disappeared from her view. The whole is a beautifully written, vivid exploration of a particular experience of mental illness and what it can reveal more generally about human experience.
“Madness may, as Gwenaelle Aubry writes, ‘name nothing, in reality,’ but her No One definitively conjures its something—makes it tenderly felt in all its mystery, horror, and sorrow. Standing between the hard reckoning of autobiography and that which implores, melancholically, ‘to be novelized,’ No One pushes softly at the limits of what life-writing can be. It is a work of remarkable understatement and earned majesty, both.”
—Maggie Nelson, author of Bluets and The Art of Cruelty
“Gwenaëlle Aubry’s No One is a beautifully rendered and conceived work. Structured like a duet, with writing by her dead father and herself, No One is about the search for a wanderer father in the morass of his unstable identity. It is an impassioned novel, a psychoanalytic double session, an examination of the limits of language, and an act of filial devotion.”
—Lynne Tillman, author of Someday This Will Be Funny
“The words are simple yet offer tremendous power. The fact is: we want to dog ear every page to relive certain moments, those certain expressions that put our hair on end…”
—Le Figaro Litteraire
"[No One] achieves a double portrait: that of a fragmented man searching desperately for unity through writing, and that of a daughter who will succeed where her father failed by making him a novel’s hero…”
— Magazine Litteraire
"A cubist and polyphonic portrait, ridden with elegance and restraint, [No One] is a two-fold autobiography of a father and daughter, its threads are delicately woven with impressions, memories and language that recreate the figure of complex and engaging man, stranger to the world- yet, also stranger to himself…”
—Le Monde des Livres
"[Gwenaëlle Aubry’s] words, persistent and fixed in the glance of she who cannot save him, resemble a string of melancholy diamonds…may she be reassured: with this powerful book, she pays her debt of love in full…”
“Page after page, with meticulousness and infinite tenderness, [Aubry] probes the biography, perspective, staggering failures, and the terrors of this man.”
“[Aubry's] admirable book, woven with uncertainty, is altogether an intimate investigation, a declaration of love, homage, and tomb.”
Q&A with Trista Selous and Gwenäelle Aubry
TS:You write about a subject that is ostensibly biographical and autobiographical, but you describe No One as a 'novel'. What does the term 'novel' mean to you, what distinguishes No One from a work of pure (auto)biography, and why did you choose to write it as a novel?
GA: I don’t think that No One can be described as biographical in aim, still less autobiographical. True it was born out of a manuscript left by my father, bearing the words ‘to be novelized’. But this original text itself was in no way an autobiography, nor was it a personal journal: instead it was more like a dialogue between an individual and his own absence, an attempt – repeated every day and failing every day – to coincide with himself. So not so much a self-portrait as a ‘hetero-portrait’, as though this absence could only be warded off or masked by calling up doubles, emblematic figures, often childlike and fictional (James Bond, the Clown, the pirate etc). Its events, dates and memories were uncertain. A fictional thread could be identified within it, which the enigmatic command ‘to be novelized’ invited me to continue. So I had to establish my own text in the uncertain place between reality and delirium – or lying or a novel, call it what you will. To try to coincide with the imaginary of melancholy by calling up, in my turn, a theatre of shadows, of other masks, other personae and other characters, what the philosopher Giorgio Agamben would call ‘personimages’, in order to describe the inner phantasms of a melancholic, but certainly not in my own image.
Initially I even forbade myself to use the first person. But, added to the already powerful constraints of the alphabetic sections, this restriction didn’t work. At the start I also noted, in a preparatory notebook, ‘there will be no place here for childhood memories’. So I tried to find a way of using ‘I’ that would distance it as far as possible from me. No One is a book about the impossibility of knowing oneself intimately, of coinciding with oneself; it’s about the illusion of the single, immediate self, about happiness and the potential risk of not taking oneself for oneself, not being at one with oneself. At any rate, let’s say that I chose novelistic hypothesis, laying no claim to any factual or clinical truth. The original text obviously lent itself to other possibilities. A novel is also a space of arbitrariness, or at any rate a vertiginous freedom. And yet, strangely, it’s subject to a kind of necessity, which of course dictates the original desire, but also the form, and then, one by one, the words. And you know that the book is there when the initial vertigo is entirely contained by that necessity.
So I didn’t have to ‘choose’ the novel form. It was never in question. Firstly because this form is mine (and that’s why from the outset I understood the command ‘to be novelized’ as addressed to me) and secondly because (it’s an obvious point that must sometimes be restated) literature is not about documenting anything or relating personal experience. It speaks a different language, frees up other powers through which it attains a deeper reality. Writing No One, as I understood afterwards, was even, in a way, writing about the possibility of writing itself and of any creation (the complicity between the artist and the melancholic is an old, old story): it was writing about the inner crowd, the many voices that say ‘I’ in each one of us and that the social scene constrains us to conceal in favor of a role, a single, fixed mask. That said, and however attractive it may be, we must also be wary of this old story, and the romanticization of madness. The mad do not make works of art; they endure and submit. And when, despite everything, a work of art is created (I’m thinking of Antonin Artaud, the double "A" with which No One opens), it draws on that which resists madness, emerging victorious from the battle with that particular angel or devil. Meanwhile writers are not (or not just) melancholic: ultimately they make their inner crowd submit to their own rhythm and pulse. Like Ulysses who, after calling himself "No one" (outis, in Greek) to escape the Cyclops, ends up safe on the shore, saying both his real name and his cunning, his metis.
TS: No One is narrated in a very particular voice, reminiscent of speech, but at the same time clearly a construction of the written word. Could you say something about what guided you in creating that voice?
GA: From the outset I wanted my own text to be a kind of echo chamber above and beyond absence, that would enable the voice that speaks in the original text to resound, a voice that seemed to me, in its power of strangeness, its involuntary somber beauty, to resonate with the texts that had nourished me, in which I had rooted myself and that had helped me live. There was an initial stage when I did nothing but read and reread my father’s manuscript, trying to grasp both its singing and its insistence. I would catch at a word, a name, and try to follow the line it was tracing. I think the narrator’s voice was born of that effort (which, moreover, in the process of writing itself, was jubilant), so again of that twin movement of coinciding – resonating – with one or more others, and letting go of oneself – at once possession and dispossession.
TS: You say you chose to approach your father through a novelistic hypothesis, rather than laying claim to any kind of factual truth, but isn't all biographical - and indeed autobiographical - writing necessarily hypothetical where the inner workings of the subject are concerned? Arguably the difference between a work of biography and a work of fiction - a novel - in which 'real people' appear is that, in the former case the emphasis is on the coincidence of the hypothetical construct with reality, while in the latter the emphasis is on the work of art, the relationship of its hypothesis to reality being coincidental (though always possible) and ultimately irrelevant. But with No One I feel the relationship is more balanced. There is your father's writing, which you did not write, whose version of facts you listen to and sometimes correct, and you locate events in a chronology and particular places. So I'm wondering if you haven't created a new genre, neither 'novel' nor '(auto)biography', but something like a dialogue with reality, in which reality, the work of art and the gap between them all have equal weight?
GA: I don’t know about a new genre – the novel is malleable enough to contain and subvert them all. In No One the writing and formal construction are of course crucial: I could never have written this book if the ABC solution had not come to me. I say “solution” because this constraint really worked as a barrage against personal feelings, a personal story, a novel of mourning or a family story, all of which I wanted to avoid. Like all constraints, it generated freedom and a playful, jubilant, movement with unexpected and indeed chance elements. And this form was of course also the most faithful to my ‘subject’ – to this multiple, scattered, fragmented self that I have tried to trace, but not to recompose.
But I’m fully in agreement with the phrase ("a dialogue with reality" etc) that you use to describe the text. But of course the crucial thing is to know with which “reality” the text is in “dialogue”. You mention a "gap" – this reality that I try to articulate already has holes from what is called “madness”, a very long way from everyday, verifiable, ordinary, normal “reality”. And it has also already been said, already recreated by language. Perhaps this is what gives rise to the strange "balance" or back-and-forth that you describe: from the start the coincidence that is sought, and is of course impossible (the novel being a space of betrayal as much as fidelity), could only occur in the field of language, of fiction and imagination. And this is why No One brings in not just fictional figures, but works of fiction, such as Woody Allen’s Zelig and Truffaut’s films, which have at least as much weight and power to elucidate as any particular identifiable event. Similarly, on an occasion when the name of the father is spoken, it’s as the name of someone else, a figure from history but shrouded in legend, a man known as the Napoleon of the Far North, as though (but of course I didn’t realize this until afterwards) naming, the name itself, had already been taken over by doubles and the arena of fiction.
TS: Your description of writing with your father's text, resonating with the voice of his writing, is reminiscent of a sung duet, where the voices together have a different sound from either voice alone. This is something I felt clearly in No One, that though the book is ultimately yours, your father's voice is very present and has its own gravitas, through the space that you give it. Was the desire to work in this way specific to your relationship to your father's writing, or can you imagine doing the same thing with other texts or other authors?
GA: Someone once said to me that the task I had set myself here was perhaps not so different from the work I have done, as part of my philosophical activity, on the ancient texts that I translated and annotated, such as the treatise by Plotinus that is mentioned in No One. But it’s still very different: I wasn’t seeking to explain or analyze anything, as a psychoanalyst might also do when working on a “case”, but to enable it to be heard and to sing. To find an echo beyond absence. To bring a voice back to presence. Pierre Michon says somewhere, “Those who have vainly asked the world to give them their due – in other words all those who have ever lived, the former living – aspire to a body of words that is more solid, more full of song, a bit better paid and a bit less mortal than the last one”. This was what I wanted, to construct a body of words that were a bit “more full of song”, and through it to make up for the silence and forgetting.
TS: As well as your late father, various other members of your family appear in No One, notably your mother, sister and daughter, but also your extended family on your father's side. Did you have to negotiate with their voices, either mentally or directly with the people concerned, in writing the book?
GA: No, because I wasn’t writing about them. As I said, No One is not a family story. When the mother appears, it is only through the father’s eyes, and memories, images that can’t be verified. The family story itself was already legend: in the novel – or romance – that the father constructs for himself, he’s a descendant of the Comte de Chambord, his daughters have a claim to the throne of France… The narrator is surprised to discover that the family hero, a great-uncle who was in the Resistance, founder of the Normandie-Niemen squadron, really existed. That said – but it’s true for all my books – I never forget that writing involves doing great violence to reality and to other people. You’re always in a relationship of retribution combined with predation. So it’s important not to confuse literature with confession, confidences or score-settling. I’m always suspicious of writers who speak of themselves as victims: writing of course means allowing others in, being taken over by their wars, conflicts and violence. But it also means wielding very great power: in reality it means taking back your own power, becoming the agent of what you have merely endured, by reformulating, recomposing it.